What is truth? What is art? And what's that little girl doing with gobs of paint?
Making hundreds of thousands of dollars, she is.
Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That is a fascinating documentary about (then) 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, an Upstate New York tot whose abstract canvases - first hung in a cafe, then in a local art gallery in the fall of 2004 - began selling for five figures. To date, the "pint-sized Pollack's" work has netted more than $300,000.
The focus of much media hoopla, and a 60 Minutes debunking that suggested Marla's art was the product of coaching from her dad - and perhaps the actual handiwork of her dad - Marla remains something of a mystery. Her father, Mark, is a night-shift manager at a Frito-Lay plant, and an amateur artist who, so the story goes, handed his little tot a brush and canvas one day to keep her busy while he painted. Marla's mother, Laura, is a dental assistant.
Filmmaker Bar-Lev gained the couple's confidence, set up shop in the Olmstead home, traveled with them to New York as they made the rounds of talk shows and photo shoots, and celebrated the opening of Marla's show at a downtown gallery. But even with all the access - or perhaps because of it - doubts about the provenance of Marla's paintings began plaguing the documentarian.
My Kid Could Paint That features entertainingly brainy musings from New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, and comments from child psychologists, friends and Marla collectors. The film is not simply an investigation into the authenticity of the girl's work (she continues to produce, and sell - check out www.marlaolmstead.com). It's a thought-provoking look at the world of abstract art, the relationship between a reporter and his/her subject, and the nature of parenting, prodigies, and "objective" storytelling.
My Kid Could Paint That ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. With Marla, Mark and Laura Olmstead. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.